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Q&A: EU journalist, former prof Pavel Cernoch

Dr. Pavel Cernoch was born in communist Czechoslovakia, and moved to West Germany at the age of six, growing up on both sides of the Iron Curtain. He became politically active and witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. He earned his M.A. from Erlangen-Nürnberg University in 1995 and spent four years working for the European Commission. Dr. Cernoch then taught European Integration at the Center for European Studies at Charles University in Prague, which he co-founded.

Eight years ago, Dr. Cernoch taught at Grinnell as a Visiting Professor of Political Science. He then became the Director of the Czech Cultural Institute in Brussels in 2003 and served as deputy spokesperson of the Czech Permanent Representation to the EU from 2005-07. Currently, Dr. Cernoch works as a journalist in the Web Comm. Unit of the Press Department in the European Parliament. He came to Grinnell this week in a talk sponsored by the Russian, Central, and Eastern European Studies Concentration.

Umeed Chowdhury '12 talks with European Parliament Press Officer Pavel Cernoch. Photo taken by Aaron Barker.

Growing up in West Germany and frequently returning to Czechoslovakia, what were your impressions of Communism and the political scene as a youth?

When you’re a child you tend to take things for granted, you don’t question them. You take the world as you see it with your eyes, as you see it with your senses. That world is weird, you know? At some point you start thinking about it or you start feeling that something’s not right, but you can’t really name it. That gives you an ability later to come back to the experiences and to evaluate them.

I think that was the process for me, because I was five when I left Communist Czechoslovakia. I was thrown into a foreign country, a foreign language. I didn’t speak a word of German. Within a few months, I had to struggle through, so I started speaking. I went to school and it took me two years. I have it in my school report from second grade that “Pavel already speaks quite good English.” It was a hard time, but it was a very formative time where I established an ability to function in another society.

Because we left the country legally, my mother married out, we were not classical immigrants who would not have been able to return once they fled the Communist country. We were able to ask for permission, pay for an entry visa and go to see my grandparents, my father, relatives, which was odd and unusual. For me crossing this boarder was—of course I had another world there, I had my family there, so I was home in both places, but they didn’t match. When I was growing up, when I became a teenager I started to ask, why don’t they match?

Very soon you learn to value freedom when you have it because you know how it looks when you don’t have it. You’re not allowed to say what you think and you have to be afraid of expressing your opinion. Like with my father when we would sit down and talk, the first thing that he would do, he would turn on the radio so that neighbors and anybody else couldn’t listen in to what we were talking about. This was a weird thing. Again as a child you take this for granted. Okay, I see my dad and we turn on the radio before we talk. But then later you start questioning it. I think personally this gave me an ability at a very early age to be aware of what really matters in life, meaning the freedom and democracy, the ability to choose, to be what you want to be.

When in the eighties Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union this was a sign of hope, you know that things would start changing and that maybe this system, which was rotten and everybody knew it, economically it didn’t function, it was heavily relying on suppressing people, so this Communist system, but it might maybe still be reformed some way so they would bring back freedom to people. And obviously once freedom started to appear … people lost fear to express their opinions. And when people don’t have fear, as we see today in the Arab world, you can’t control them as a dictator anymore and they become free. I think that is a very important lesson to learn, that when people lose fear, everything is possible.

When did you become politically active and how?

Well at the age of five [Laughs], kindergarten, perhaps. No I’m exaggerating. My stepfather was from Belgrade originally and he lived in West Germany. The discussions we had at home was always—there was West Germany, there was Czechoslovakia and there was something in between, this Yugoslavia, run by Tito—Josip Broz Tito.
In a way I understood as a child, but also growing up, that that’s actually the best. It has the good things from the socialist system, it has the good things from the capitalist, the western system, you could travel and you could use money, exchange money and you could live—so I thought is great! Then when I was 10 years old this man who symbolized all that, Tito, he died, and on television it was a huge state funeral and somehow I began to understand that with this man dying, because it was somehow his dream that he would take the good things from both sides, this Yugoslavia is losing what it had. I think that was me very personally the point where I became politically aware of things.

Could you give a piece of advice for students aspiring towards journalism at this time of the demise of newspapers and traditional reporting?

The journalism today is changing, with the internet, with blogs, with direct access to information.  It’s amazing, it’s wonderful.  Facebook, if you look at Facebook, we interconnected in a way which we couldn’t dream.  I grew up having pen-friends around the world, maybe five, which was a lot you know, Papua New Guinea, Colorado, Ghana, and I felt like I’m interconnected, but in today’s words I would have had five Facebook friends [Laughs].  The advice I would like to give is that embrace this media and don’t let yourself be steered by or constrained by editorial interests or mostly financial interests of newspapers or mainstream media, if that isn’t something you want to be doing.  If you have an idea, through the internet you can find yourself friends, find yourself mentors, push that idea, in its pure form—you don’t have to make a compromise.  That’s very, very valuable. That freedom to be what you want to be is very important because then you figure out there are a lot of people who share that view, and they are not manipulated by financial corporate interests or other interests.  So that is one advice.  The other advice that goes along these lines is to be active as a citizen and not to be afraid to voice your opinion.  Maybe a very good example would be… in Germany there was a big scandal with the minister of defense, he was the most popular politician in Germany, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg.  It actually has been found out that he plagiarized his doctoral thesis.  At first they found only like five articles which were stolen and at that time he kind of blabbed, “This is all… that’s absurd…”, but then people on the internet set up a wiki-page on the internet and the whole country started looking for sources which he might have stolen.  In the end, within a week, they found that he had stolen more than two thirds and that his whole doctoral thesis is basically stolen from other sources and not quoted.  The pressure was so strong that he eventually had to resign, even though the most popular politician.  He thought as a politician that he could use this popularity and save him in office, and you see it was young people, who were not afraid, students who knew that they themselves would be punished if they would be doing something like that, who felt offended by someone who appeared to be a good guy, standing up for values, actually can do it and get off with it and stay in office.  That outrage and that pressure is so amazing because it used the internet and it used the power of people who were not afraid to say, “No, you’re not going to make a fool out of us.  You’re sitting in this higher office, you might think that politics is all about making deals.  No way.  There are certain values, certain fundamental things, which we believe in and we won’t let you get away with it.” This is amazing, so I think this would be my advice, to look for examples like this. And I think the US is an inspiring country.  I love the US.  Being a little boy I always admired the United States for a lot of things.  That’s why it’s so problematic for me to face the US today and a lot of things that are being in the name of the US all around the world. Nevertheless, when you have a society which enables you and gives you that space to express that freedom and to criticize and to have an opinion and to change things—and every time I look at the Obama election, the way it was done, how it mobilized people—that in itself has been something that was admired all around the world. It’s an admiration for this fearlessness in young Americans to go out and voice their opinions.  The world admires you for that and you should be aware of that and use it.

What issues have had the most difficulty dealing with in relation to the US?

I’ll speak now as a convinced European because European policies are a lot about finding consensus and listening to each other.  What we’re concerned with—I would say the overarching issue is sustainability—the way we live, the way we use our resources, the way we treat our planet.  National Geographic has recently published a review; it came out as a special supplement, where it outlined that if every citizen in the world would live like an American we would need five and a half planets.  That is appalling.  I mean that tells you something, that something’s wrong.  We can’t go on like this. If every person on the planet would live like a European, it would be still two and a half planets, so that’s still appalling, but it’s on a slightly different scale.  Nevertheless the discussion that we have in Europe based on that is that we have to find ways to make out life sustainable.  We cannot go on like this.  We cannot live on the bills of our children.  We cannot live and let our children pay the bill, give them a debt.  I think that is not so widely understood over here.  Of course there are people who talk about that in the US as well, but I’m not sure whether that’s embraced and understood on the scale which it should be understood. That is a problem I have with the US. Also the fact that sometimes I find it difficult to make myself understood over here—that this really matters. To put it into words, when an American says, “it’s history” it means “oh that’s something old and doesn’t matter really anymore.  It’s history, now forget about it, let’s look ahead.” While a European says, “it’s history, oh my gosh it matters.  We have to take it seriously. We must avoid making the same mistakes as we did before.” I think this is somewhere we have to get together, Europeans and Americans, because together we bear a huge portion of responsibility for the planet.  It’s very hypocritical to point our finger at countries like China or India and say, “oh now you have to make cuts, and if you don’t make cuts, we won’t make cuts. You’re the big polluters.” I don’t think it works that way. The answer we get from them is “listen guys, you’ve been polluting the planet for the last three hundred years, so either we have a right to pollute it as well or we do something altogether. Of course that argument is also problematic, but it still doesn’t resolve the problem that the planet won’t wait until we find an agreement, so we have to find action now.

What is your favorite memory from your experience teaching at Grinnell and how did your Grinnell experience compare to your other teaching experiences with students from different cultural backgrounds?

I don’t know if I can pinpoint one thing, but one of the great things about teaching in Grinnell was the diversity of the students and their will to learn and to learn new things and to engage, and also to engage together, because my classroom was always filled with people from all over the world. Of course the American students would make up a big portion, but even the American students were very diverse. There were students from bigger cities, there were students from rural areas, North Dakota, Montana, Iowa itself, and it was fascinating for me to hear their discussions with their friends from New York, LA, or Dallas, Texas. Then putting someone from Africa into it, or Iraq, or Japan, Korea. I think that is most fascinating experience.

How it compares to my other teaching? I’ll be very open: I was not prepared for teaching here. Coming from the top university in the Czech Republic, the top center for European studies, where we had a selection of the ten percent of the best students of the country get together, and I was teaching a master’s program, so I was teaching master’s graduates. The level of teaching was very concrete, based on a very wide knowledge base. I didn’t have to explain a lot of things because they were already clear. Here I realized that a lot of students they virtually know nothing about international politics, about the world. I had a map in my room and most students couldn’t pinpoint boarders, countries, capitals. At first I was shocked because in most European countries you learn that in high school and if you don’t learn that in high school, you don’t pass. You can’t go to university if you don’t know your geography or a rough idea of history and then go study social science. You can’t do that.

Here it’s a bit different. But I was very careful not to blame my students but to see them as sponges who are eager to learn and they are aware of things they don’t know but they very quickly are willing to fill these deficits if you help them. And that was the most rewarding experience for me that I would say most of the students were really very fast learners and as a sponge they soaked up a lot of information. I felt great because I had a lot to give them. With some of my students I’m still in touch today, and it’s a special bond because it brought further. Also this relationship, the teacher-student, I think it’s very important because the older you grow, the difference kind of fades away and you both strive for similar ideas, so that was very good. And in the end we’re all Grinnellians, right?

Could you describe your latest project or research in the European Parliament?

Well I’ve worked for the last four years in the Press Department, in the Web Comm. Unit, which is the unit with deals with the Internet page, news page of the European Parliament. European Parliament works in 22 different languages, in all official languages except Irish—there’s a special agreement with Irish, so it’s being translated into Irish, but it’s not published—anyway, 22 languages every day. So for every language we have an editor, and with that team we were striving to get the parliament out to audiences which otherwise we wouldn’t be able to reach or would not be interested in looking at an institution, far away sitting somewhere in Brussels.

So one of the ways we’ve approached that was to go out on Facebook and create some interesting topics the Parliament is dealing with, through Facebook, collect fans, get people engaged, so now two and a half-three years with more than 100,000 fans, more than any other European Union Institution, maybe even more than any other public institution around the globe, so we’re very proud of that. It’s a dedicated team of a few people who’s working day to day on that and moderates the pages. What we can do through that is that, for instance when we have a discussion on human rights, and the report being presented by a member of the European Parliament who looks at an annual report and compiles the worst cases of human rights violations. That becomes part of a political debate, but we can get that person on Facebook, answering stirring questions from fans and people around the world, face to face.

I found that very, very rewarding, that you can direct access to people who are the movers, who care about things and you can call them voters or active citizens or just interested people, they can get direct access. It’s not somebody far away in a glass castle, it’s a concrete person, elected in a public election, doing a job and interacting on that issue. Getting that to work I found very rewarding. That was why this project I was proudly involved in the unit I was working. And I think it still gets a lot of attention worldwide, that the Parliament and the European Union as a whole has gone out and embraced the social networks and it’s creating different dynamics in democracy.

Of the thirteen languages you speak, which is your favorite?

That’s difficult. When I think and learn, I use German. My brain is very much wired in German. My mouth, my communication language is English. I love English for being such a global communication tool which connects with people all around the world and easy to speak, easy to learn. My heart speaks in Czech, so it’s my emotion, what I feel, and how I am deep inside, I think I can best express it in Czech. And it’s wonderful to make love in French. I can’t really pinpoint, it depends on the activity you do.

What language do you dream in?

That depends where I am. This night I was sleeping in Grinnell house and I was dreaming in Iowan. [Laughs] I think Iowa has grown on me a little bit.

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  • W

    Wendie KiskaddonApr 4, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    Love the language comment. Similar for you Rashed? I also enjoyed the name of the person that interviewed him.

  • R

    Rashed Chowdhury '03Apr 4, 2011 at 12:08 am

    Pavel, I love the fact that you were interviewed by another Chowdhury.